"There once were two ants in Westphalia" - Joachim Ringelnatz

7 August 1883, 130 ago, the sailor, author and cabaret artist Joachim Ringelnatz (Hans Bötticher) was born in Wurzen (Saxony).

“Ehrgeiz - Ich habe meinen Soldaten aus Blei / Als Kind Verdienstkreuzchen eingeritzt. / Mir selber ging alle Ehre vorbei, / Bis auf zwei Orden, die jeder besitzt. // Und ich pfeife durchaus nicht auf Ehre. / Im Gegenteil. Mein Ideal wäre, / Daß man nach meinem Tod (grano salis) / Ein Gäßchen nach mir benennt, ein ganz schmales / Und krummes Gäßchen, mit niedrigen Türchen, / Mit steilen Treppchen und feilen Hürchen, / Mit Schatten und schiefen Fensterluken. // Dort würde ich spuken.“ (Ambition – I used to scratch medals, when I was a lad, / On my tin soldiers with a knife. / Except for the two that everyone had, / I go no other honors myself in all my life. // That is not to say that to me it is all the same. / In fact, my Ideal is / That after my death (cum grano salis) / A little street should be given my name, / A narrow twisty street with lowdown doors, / Steep stairways and cheap little whores, / Shadows and sloping roof-windows I want. // It would be my haunt. Joachim Ringelnatz, 1932)

Ringelnatz's alter ego "Kuddel Daddeldu"

Born into a middle class family with a father who corresponded on a regularly basis with the literary worthies of the German Empire, young Ringelnatz was a bit of a dropout. Small, ugly Hans called his teachers the "darkmen" and soon fell prey to the school bullies. He reacted with violence and drawing and writing and was finally expelled from the venerable institution when he showed around the tattoo a Samoan from a human zoo (one of the infamous “Völkerschau” quite common around 1900) had made on his lower arm. Hans ran away to the sea. And woke up to a very sobering reality aboard the South America-bound sailer “Elli”. After his return to Europe, he slogged through various odd jobs for the next couple of years, as a counter jumper, carrying boas for “Malferteiner’s Schlangenbude” (the "snake den", a curiosity show at the “Hamburger Dom” funfair), selling cigarettes, sailing between Hamburg, Hull and Amsterdam as an ordinary seaman and finally publishing a few of his comic songs and short novels when the Great War broke out.

Frontispiece of Ringelnatz' "Kuttel Deddeldu" (1920)

Ringelnatz served on a minelayer, saw no action but finally managed to get a promotion to lieutenant, flirting with the Revolution of 1918/19, but soon turned his back on them indignantly, when the revolutionaries wouldn’t give him a command post and went on stage in the small clubs and theatres of the Roaring Twenties’ Berlin and Munich, singing his funny couplets and telling hilarious stories, always wearing his customary sailors’ dress, en passant marrying “without money, a place to live or sense” a teacher, Leonharda Pieper, fifteen years younger than himself, tenderly calling her “Muschelkalk” (coquina), going hungry, often having no idea how to pay the rent, painting and publishing, some of the most gentle and linguistically innovative lines to be found in German literature.

Ringelnatz’ painting “Hafenkneipe” (Harbour Pub, 1934)

Ringelnatz’ strong point was nonsense verse and, if he chose not to be deliberately Dadaistic, wrote them with an ironic and multi-layered virtuosity like few others. His long prose poems about the sailor Kuddel Daddeldu and his hair-rising adventures became his trademark, even though his later poems have an autobiographical, serious and sometimes sombre ring to them, usually reduced to absurdity with a grotesque last line. When the lights went out in Germany in 1933, his works, poems and prose and paintings were banned in toto. Ringelnatz considered to emigrate to Switzerland, but tuberculosis got him first. He died 1934 in Berlin. Leonharda Muschelkalk published his literary remains after the war.

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and a few of his poems in translation on: